On July 16th, 2021 I capitulated to friends, random internet strangers, and the will of Yoshi-P and downloaded the free trial of Final Fantasy XIV Online, which goes up to level 60 and includes the award-winning blah blah blah you know that spiel and joke since I already did my Realm Reborn Roundup.
This summer was rough for me for a myriad of personal reasons. I was going through a lot and while all those personal details are a discussion for another time, what is important is that Final Fantasy XIV was an outlet that probably saved my sanity and kept me grounded. Shortly after my Realm Reborn roundup I subscribed to an MMO for the first time in my life because of how much time I was spending in the world and how much I was enjoying myself exploring Eorzea.
On November 18, 2021, almost exactly four months from when I started playing (and the day before the original Early Access for Endwalker was supposed to start) I rolled credits on the final main story quest of the Shadowbringers expansion – thus “completing” the main story of Final Fantasy XIV that’s currently out. It was a weird sensation – my sole drive in the realm of gaming for the past four months had slowly morphed into completing the story in time for Endwalker’s release. And I was ultimately left with that empty feeling of “now what?”
So clearly the next step is I’m gonna write about it.
Twenty-one days of playtime. Now, granted, that’s a slightly exaggerated number: I’d accidentally leave the game running while I puttered around the apartment/house, I’d be waiting for a raid and doing other stuff while the timer ticked up, or I’d be simultaneously playing and doing work going back and forth because my brain likes to do that. But it’s not exaggerated by THAT much. In four months I racked up nearly a whole month of play-time in this game. I’m pretty sure the only thing that compares is my 420 hours of playtime in Slay the Spire on my Switch (yes that’s also a real number, don’t judge me).
(For reference, 21 days is 504 hours, so in four months FFXIV surged ahead of a game I’ve been playing in spurts for over two years.)
Everything I complained about in my original roundup is still present across those many hours. It’s still an MMO that has you running from place to place for nonsense filler quests when you just want to get the story moving. But overall it does get much, much better after A Realm Reborn. Dungeon designs get coolers, trials and raids get more awesome, and the story gets so, so much more compelling. The final final ARR mission (the 2.5 finale, not the 2.0 finale) is like it’s own half hour TV show complete with twists and turns and surprise reveals – someone I know compared it to a Game of Thrones season finale and it’s an apt description. And the story just goes up from there.
So let me break down a little bit of what kept me engaged with the content.
Life as a Machinist
Meet Sabrina Branford, my Au Ra Warrior of Light. She was a Black Mage & Red Mage up until I unlocked the Heavensward content, and then she switched to Machinist and never looked back.
I love the Machinist role. I like the mobility that a ranged DPS offers – you can dodge attacks without losing your damage output but as long as you have good positioning you’re never out of range of the enemy you’re fighting. Machinist is also one of the more involved rotations as there are a lot of different attacks and timings to manage so you’re not just hitting the same button over and over. It leads to me finding a fun rhythm during battles as I have to balance both my hotbar and positioning for enemy attacks.
(For those who have never played an MMO, a rotation is your sequence of abilities that you cycle through as you’re fighting enemies. Optimal rotation involves using your most powerful abilities on cooldown, aka as soon as possible, and making sure those abilities line up with the buffs you get from other members of your party. More abilities lead to a more complicated rotation.)
It’s also just a favorite role of mine in Final Fantasy history. Mustadio and Balthier are two of my favorite characters from Final Fantasy lore so stepping into their shoes feels perfect. A lot of the Machinist’s abilities are also based off of Edgar’s tools in Final Fantasy 6, which is my favorite FF so everything about this role just works for me. It also helps to be a DPS since this is my first MMO and tanking and healing both feel like a step up in difficulty, especially in higher level content.
Also pew pew. Who doesn’t love pew pew?
Let’s get to my favorite part of FFXIV – the trials and raids. Trials are basically the equivalent of boss fights in FFXIV. You’re a part of an eight-person party (4 DPS, 2 Tanks, 2 Healers) against one giant enemy and the goal is to whittle its hit points to zero while dodging all of its attacks. As for raids, there are two different kinds: normal and alliance. Normal raids are basically just a series of harder trials that you usually complete in three sets of four, for a total of 12 battles. Alliance raids are huge, 24-person endeavors where you fight a series of trial-esque bosses one after another, usually linked together by short dungeons you have to explore with a few inconsequential enemies.
The initial trials you experience are fun, if not simple. But as you progress through the game the mechanics get more and more involved and the bosses get harder and harder. When I first started I would look up each trial while I was waiting for the queue to pop so I would be prepared for all the attacks and wouldn’t screw it up for the party I joined. But once I got to around Stormblood (the second expansion) I gave up pre-gaming the trials and just went in blind every time. I surprised myself because while cues differ slightly between bosses, once you’ve played enough of the trials you sort of learn the rhythm and can navigate the fights easily if you pay attention.
(I do have a bad habit of not realizing what attacks will move you and end up frequently knocked off the edge of the map into oblivion.)
So why are the trials and raids so great for me? Because a lot of them are steeped in Final Fantasy lore and contain boatloads of fan service. The Stormblood Alliance raids are a love letter to Ivalice – both Tactics and XII; the Stormblood normal raids are pure FF5 and FF6 nostalgia; you fight the Weapons from FF7 in Shadowbringers trials. Most of the early trials are summons from previous Final Fantasy games too. And even the raids that tangentially use FF lore have their own unique, interesting stories: the Heavensward Alexander raid is probably still my favorite sub-story of all of FFXIV and the Void Ark portion of the Heavensward alliance raid is one of my favorite settings – it just looks so COOL.
Final Fantasy is a series that’s very important to me; the FFs were my JRPG bread and butter growing up and I’ve replayed them time and time again. Seeing all the references to old games woven into FFXIV’s story fills me with joy, but it also blows my mind that they manage to make all of these things feel like an integrated part of FFXIV’s world and not just dropped in because Final Fantasy.
1. Knights of the Round
4. Emerald Weapon
Favorite Raid Bosses
1. Phantom Train (O5)
2. Kefka (O8)
3. Alexander Prime (A12)
4. Ramuh (E5)
5. Titan (E4)
So obviously I’m gonna talk about the music. It’s me. The music in FFXIV is phenomenal – which is good, if I’m gonna be spending 21 days in a game I better get some good tunes to listen to. Not only are there fantastic remixes of old Final Fantasy songs, but there are brand new songs that rock just as hard.
I’m just gonna link to a few of my favorites here and let you listen for yourself if you please:
And if there’s one track of these you listen to, please, please, please, for the love of all that is holy listen to this one:
Okay is that enough music? I think so. Yeah the music in this game is good.
So A Realm Reborn was a middling story about a group of plucky heroes uniting nations to take on the evil empire while stopping the evil beast tribes from summoning evil monsters. Ho-hum. It was…fine. Honestly I barely remember most of what I sped through and it is, by far, the worst part of the entire FFXIV experience.
But man, after that the story goes places. Heavensward is a clear step-up in terms of storytelling. A saga between a religious nation and its eternal war with dragons is another by-the-book fantasy trope, but Heavensward does it extremely well. It ends up painting a realistic picture of the struggles of both sides, making sure both sides have their “good” and “bad” reasons. Factions within factions occur and the motivations of all parties are clear and not just “lol evil.”
Stormblood takes it up another notch with some of my favorite characters – the entire land of Doma and their struggles with the Empire have a much bigger impact than the entire struggle with the empire from ARR. This is helped by a strong supporting cast (Hien and Gotetsu are the highlights) even though the villains in this section end up sliding back towards “lol evil” on the motivation scale, unfortunately. But the climax in Doma feels earned after uniting all the parties in your adventures and is probably my second-favorite story climax in the game.
Shadowbringers, though, blows it all out of the water. It’s success can only be achieved off the back of everything previous to it, though. I’m a sucker for the “you end up in a new place and slowly reunite with all your buddies and see what they’ve been up to” trope in stories/video games – FF6 is a great example of it. Shadowbringers does this with your buddies and introduces a completely new world and story to explore while building off of everything established previously.
It also single-handedly produces one of the best and most fully realized villains in fiction that I can think of: Emet-Selch is hands-down the best villain of the series so far because by the end of it you completely understand his motivations and why you and he will never be able to see eye to eye and why you have to fight him. It’s wonderful character development even if he’s an ass the entire time, and the climactic showdown with him at the end of Shadowbringers is by far my favorite story moment of the entire game. With everything you’ve gone through up until this point, there’s a tangible weight in the final confrontation.
Now granted, there’s a lot of MMO-ness in the middle of all the great story beats. I did find myself occasionally zoning out and skipping through scenes that my brain deemed “unnecessary” if we were dealing with side characters or side plots that I knew wouldn’t involve the main story. But the overall experience is totally worth it.
A lot of what I wrote about is a very clinical explanation of the moving parts of FFXIV and why I enjoy the game mechanically. But the game is about more than just the gamey parts. It’s about the feelings and shared experiences among community members.
The FFXIV community has been the nicest online game community I’ve ever been a part of. I can think of exactly two instances in my 21 days of playing where some random person was an asshole. It’s like night and day compared to games like Valorant or Overwatch where threats, aggressiveness, and reportable behavior happened every other game. In FFXIV everyone is friendly and helpful when you’re new to things, they answer questions in chat, and even failures are met with “everyone makes mistakes, it’s ok we got it this try.”
Early on I was mining at a very low level (during the free trial) and a random person came up to me, gave me an item to help with mining, said “it’s thirsty work out here!,” waved and moved on. I’ve had dance parties with random strangers in random city locations. At one point while grinding I ended up pairing with a random dude and we just followed each other to the next grind location and helped each other clear them. Last night I ran Praetorium – the infamous ARR finale dungeon that plays out more like a movie due to unskippable cut scenes – and our group basically spent forty minutes just chatting about how excited we are for Endwalker, what classes we’re scared to try, and Genshin Impact. There was even a legacy player from 1.0 who told us all about how horrid the original game was. It felt like a group chat while watching a movie and was such a chill, fun environment.
I play on Balmung, which has its own infamy (it’s unfortunately known as the ERP server), but honestly the community on Balmung makes the FFXIV world feel lived in (even if I’ll never get an apartment because of it). Whenever you go to Ul’Dah, there’s always going to be somebody shouting about nonsense like that one guy on the corner who smells funky, but it’s part of the charm and makes the city feel like a city. There’s always going to be a giant Moogle dancing in Limsa Lominsa (and probably a few bunny girls too).
I didn’t get why people fell headfirst into MMOs before, but I do now. I may not have made new friends by name in FFXIV, but I feel welcome there. And it feels like at any point, I could make a new friend. And that’s the magic of the world.
I want all my friends to play Final Fantasy XIV with me. Yes, it’s hard to recommend somebody sit aside 21 days of their life to get to where I am just to play random stuff with me. But I’ve started learning tank and am probably gonna go pew pew heal with Sage once Endwalker releases, so I’m willing to be the mentor people need with my whole four months of experience. I’ve gotten so invested in the FFXIV world that I’ve become one of those people who wants to drag everyone they know into the world as well in hopes they’ll enjoy it as much as me.
And that’s the easiest and hardest part about recommending Final Fantasy XIV. It’s a world that has its own ecosystem. There’s housing crises and market prices that go up and down based on supply and demand. There are Discords dedicated to hunting elite monsters and free companies that host parties every Friday night. A few Saturdays ago I ran into a full four-person band playing a concert in Limsa Lominsa’s plaza with a giant group of forty-fifty people laughing and cheering them on and dancing.
There’s all these things, AND you get to fight Ifrit and Leviathan and other cool things from Final Fantasy history while experiencing an amazing story. The FFXIV world really is whatever you want to make of it. Do you just want to mine and craft shit all day and become a gillionaire by selling rare stuff in the markets? You can do that! Are you a masochist and want to grind Savage raid content over and over for those cool glamours? You can do that too! Do you want to just float in the water and chat with friends for a few hours? Guess what? That’s available too!
In a pandemic world where options have become limited due to survival necessity, FFXIV has established another place where people can gather and have fun without fear. Maybe that’s what I needed these last few months. And if that might be what you need too, come on down to Yoshi-P’s FFXIV Fun Emporium, where we might not be Vin Diesel but you’re still family.